under the skin
under the skin

The Planet She Fell in Love With:

Under The Skin

by Graham Williamson

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It begins with an eye. It’s not immediately obvious that we’re seeing an eye: the strange arrangement of shapes that opens Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film could be a spaceship docking, an abstract representation of conception, an eclipse. Mica Levi’s extraordinary score, a fusion of discordant, microtonal strings and chattering, insect-like bursts of rhythm, suggests something truly unearthly. Then, in a sudden edit, it is revealed to be an eye, part of a human body which is being constructed to help an alien life-form go undercover on Earth.

Glazer keeps the alien’s mission veiled in mystery. Michel Faber’s source novel is more upfront; his alien, Isserley, has been sent to capture humans and process them for meat. The aliens refer to humans as vodsel, a corruption of voedsel, the Dutch word for food. In one scene we’re taken inside a vodsel farm, where the unwary men Isserley picks up are subjected to all the horrors of factory farming: bloated with chemicals, castrated, their tongues carved out.

Glazer’s film shows none of this. It doesn’t contradict it, but it doesn’t focus on it either. Faber is sometimes approached by fans of his novel who thank him for turning them into vegetarians, which he finds slightly strange: ‘For me, Under the Skin is not about the evils of eating meat but about the evils of evading moral responsibility for the decisions we make’. (Faber, 2020)

Glazer’s film doesn’t seem to be principally about this either. Glazer pitched the film to its star, Scarlett Johansson, as a journey ‘from an it to a she’ (Foster, 2019) and this seems like a better route into this joltingly cryptic work. Laura – as Glazer and Johansson’s take on Isserley is referred to in the script – is a hunter, sent to capture humans to be processed as food. We see her at her most cold-blooded in an early scene, when she is trying to ensnare a diver. The diver is distracted by a couple who are being washed out to sea. The couple drown, and Laura kills the diver with a rock to the head. As she leaves, we see that the dead couple’s baby is left on the beach with the tide coming in around it.

The decision to abandon the baby to drown makes perfect sense to Laura; it’s making too much noise, it would attract attention, there isn’t enough meat on it anyway. But it is, in every sense of the word, an inhuman decision. Later on, we see Laura picking up someone the script identifies as Lonely, played by disability rights activist Adam Pearson, who has neurofibromatosis. She sets her usual lure for victims, asking if he’s going to meet anyone, complimenting him on his looks, asking if he wants to go back to her house. We’ve seen her do this to men before, but this time the one-size-fits-all routine is rendered surreal by her inability to recognise the one thing a human would notice immediately – Lonely’s extensive facial growths. There is a sad, funny close-up of Lonely pinching himself, unable to believe this beautiful woman is treating him this way, and we are forced to acknowledge that certain forms of kindness can be inhuman as well. 

under the skin

Pearson has since appeared in other films, such as Chained for Life (US, Aaron Schimberg, 2019) and presented BBC documentaries on disability and eugenics. Glazer found him through the charity Changing Faces, and he took a similarly imaginative approach to casting the film’s other roles. Bad, the fellow alien who monitors Laura’s activity, is played by the motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams, while many of the men Laura attempts to pick up on the streets of Glasgow were real people filmed with an innovative series of hidden cameras and microphones. After the shot was complete, crew members would jump out of Laura’s van and ask the unwary passers-by to sign a release form. Maureen Foster’s excellent, comprehensive book about the film, Alien in the Mirror, records one Glaswegian who spent a year or so fruitlessly trying to convince his friends and family that he’d been in a film with Scarlett Johansson until the film’s trailer proved he wasn’t lying.

And this is where it becomes significant that the film opens with a shot of an eye, overlaid with a strange vocal incantation that, it later emerged, is Johansson practicing her English accent. Johansson is a movie star, one of the few real ones we have, and being a movie star means you are looked at more than other people. Laura’s repertoire of seductive mannerisms might remind some viewers of Judith Butler’s theory, first articulated in her 1990 book Gender Trouble, that gender is as much a performance as a biological reality. It might also remind viewers of a movie star posing on the red carpet: look over your shoulder, smile, pout.

Although Glazer can’t have known it when he approached Johansson about his film, Under the Skin fits into an era of Johansson’s work which used science fiction and fantasy devices to explore the experience of being dehumanised and objectified. Johansson, who has described herself as ‘an actor for hire’ (Reinstein, 2021), would probably swat away any sense of auteur control over the running themes of her work. But these roles appealed to her for a reason.

Johansson’s most prominent role, as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-) shifts from the simplistic action-babe characterisation of Iron Man 2 (US, Jon Favreau, 2010) to the more complex portrayal of a woman fighting her own brainwashing in Black Widow (US, Cate Shortland, 2021). Her (US, Spike Jonze, 2013) and Lucy (France, Luc Besson, 2014) see her taking the opposite path to Laura’s, moving away from humanity to become some new, extraordinary form of life. In the live-action adaptation of the classic anime Ghost in the Shell (US, Rupert Sanders, 2017) she plays another constructed life-form, this time an android, finding her humanity, while Hail, Caesar! (US, Joel and Ethan Coen, 2016) brings matters closer to home with her comic turn as DeeAnna Moran, an ostensibly squeaky-clean musical star whose private life and temperament is at odds with her image.

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For an insight into the pressures Johansson is responding to with these roles, consider The First Thing You See, a 2013 novel by Grégoire Delacourt in which the protagonist has an affair with “Scarlett Johansson”. Johansson was notably unamused, and tried to prevent the novel being translated into English on the grounds that the book’s comments on her private life were defamatory. Reviewing the novel, the Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw noted:

The author all too clearly had his eye on a juicy movie deal […] Presumably the actor suspected this as well, and it contributed to her intense irritation at the way the author was presuming to make free with her identity, reputation and prestige as some kind of jokey avatar. (Bradshaw, 2015)

There can be few less jokey avatars than Laura in Under the Skin. Whatever Delacourt saw, the first thing we see is that eye, giving us the discomforting sensation that the film – and its star – are watching us. After that Laura’s eventual failure is given a tragic foreshadowing, as Bad drags a female body into the fathomless white space that forms the aliens’ base of operations. It’s not clear who the woman is – Foster theorises she may be a previous hunter who has gone rogue – but we see Laura take her clothes and we see her becoming briefly fascinated by an ant crawling across the body. Glazer gives us a screen-filling close-up of the ant, as huge as the one of Lonely’s hands as he pinches himself, flagging up that this innocent curiosity about Earth’s life-forms will be central to Laura’s tragic journey. 

Part of that journey, which takes us back to Johansson’s need to control her sex-symbol star persona, involves moving from sexual fantasy to sexual reality. Laura presents herself to the men she meets as a character straight out of pornography, the lone female driver who offers herself without hesitation to any man she meets. She takes the men to the processing room, an all-black variant of the incomprehensible white space Laura and Bad take the woman’s body to at the start. We see Laura walk through the black space removing her clothes, the kind of fantasy image that could appear in a lingerie commercial. Then we get the reverse shot: the male voyeurs, naked, unaware that they are sinking helplessly into the same black floor Laura is walking across.

This process – moving, as the relevant track title on Levi’s soundtrack album puts it, from ‘Lipstick to Void’ – can be read as a straightforward metaphor about objectification. When Under the Skin was in cinemas, more than one person I know said it felt more like installation art than a conventional movie, and the artwork in question might be Rape (US, Yoko Ono, 1969), where camera operator Nic Knowlton followed a random woman home, filming her all the time. We can see Laura’s encounters with the men of Glasgow as a gender-reversed version of this, complete with the use of unsuspecting participants.

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Foster notes, astutely, that while the men always end up naked we don’t see Laura in a similar state until her encounter with Lonely, as if something about him is prompting her to be more vulnerable. When Laura looks at herself naked in a mirror later on in the film, it’s more complex still. The motif of women finding self-knowledge in a mirror has been a constant in stories from Snow White to Mulholland Drive (US, David Lynch, 2001). But it’s not clear what self Laura is finding knowledge of. It’s not her body, and the personality she’s developing is based on closer identification with a completely different life form. Nakedness is often used idiomatically to indicate a kind of honesty or authenticity – the naked truth, stripped back, etc. Laura’s nudity inspires her to move even further away from her origins in favour of a dream of human life.

It’s a dream that ends tragically. Laura’s brief experiment with human life sees her nearly choke on a Black Forest Gateau and sit bewildered in front of a Tommy Cooper show before it’s cut short by a greater predator than herself. Her fiery death at the hands of a logger who accidentally reveals her true nature while attempting to rape her sees Glazer break from the rest of the film’s controlled style and adopt a wild, flailing handheld camera. 

As heartbreaking as it is, it can also be read as an appropriately pyrrhic victory. Bad, who is by this point aware of her rebellion, fails in his mission to find and (presumably) kill her. As Laura’s ashes mix with the falling snow we realise she did, in the end, succeed in becoming part of the planet she fell in love with.

under the skin

Purchase Under The Skin on Blu-ray


Sources:

Bradshaw, Peter, ‘The novel Scarlett Johansson tried to ban’, The Guardian, September 9th 2015

Faber, Michel, Under the Skin, Harcourt, 2000

Faber, Michel, ‘How I write: Under the Skin changed my life for good’, The Guardian, December 5th 2020

Foster, Maureen, Alien in the Mirror: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Glazer and Under the Skin, McFarland, 2019

Reinstein, Mara, ‘Black Widow’s Scarlett Johansson talks mom life, dating SNL’s Colin Jost and all the parts she didn’t get’, Parade, July 9th 2021

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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